Treasured family heirlooms that belonged to Alexander Hamilton and his wife, Elizabeth Schuyler, including a gold “mourning ring” that his widow wore for decades, have been loaned to the Museum of the American Revolution by the Founding Father’s fifth-great-grandson.
Douglas Hamilton gave the rare artifacts to the Philadelphia museum to be featured in an exhibit called “Hamilton Was Here: Rising Up in Revolutionary Philadelphia.”
One of the most remarkable heirlooms is a Society of the Cincinnati Eagle insignia worn and owned by Hamilton.
For generations, the artifacts were kept in a cardboard box and handed down through the family with little attention paid. While Alexander Hamilton’s accomplishments and achievements were exceptional during the Revolutionary War and the founding of the United States, his life became more celebrated since the Broadway musical Hamilton arrived on Broadway in 2015.
Stephanie Dray, the co-author with Laura Kamoie of the bestselling novel My Dear Hamilton, said that the Cincinnati Eagle insignia was likely one of Hamilton’s most cherished possessions.
“The Society of the Cincinnati was intended to foster and continue to bind the brothers at arms who had fought in the American Revolution after the war had been won, and the soldiers returned to their homes in far flung states and even different countries, as was the case for the French officers who fought in the cause,” Dray said in an interview with The Vintage News. “For Alexander Hamilton, an orphan who had developed familial attachments to his fellow soldiers, this was a deeply important organization.”
The society commissioned gold eagles, which Pierre L’Enfant brought back from France to distribute to the members. A special diamond-encrusted version was given to George Washington, the first president of the organization. Upon the death of Washington, the second president was Hamilton.
“It is doubtless that this honor would have moved him deeply, and that the eagle would have been amongst Hamilton’s most prized possessions, as an emblem of the war he won,” said Dray.
Still, his prestige did not resonate with every member of the family that came after him.
“My dad never talked about it,” said Douglas Hamilton about being descended from a Founding Father in an interview with CBS. “The only story I got from my father was that being a descendant from Alexander Hamilton and 10 cents would get you a cup of coffee.”
But the 67-year-old Ohio man feels fierce pride in Alexander today.
“I think it’s important as time goes by to make sure they’re remembered,” Hamilton said while inside the workroom at the museum, where curators were preparing the items for display, which include a never-before-displayed handkerchief embroidered with Elizabeth’s name, and a baby dress with an accompanying note saying it was made by her.
According to Dray, “As an emblem of the woman he won, he surely cherished the handkerchief embroidered with her name now on display as well.”
While researching Elizabeth Hamilton, called “Eliza,” for My Dear Hamilton, Dray said, “We discovered that Eliza was an extraordinary woman of many independent achievements in the realm of social work. It is touching to see on display a child’s dress that she sewed with her own two hands, her own emblem of her own service to the nation’s orphans and children — work that she dedicated herself to after Hamilton’s death, continuing until her death at the age of 97.”
The gold mourning ring she wore contained a strand of her husband’s hair. Hamilton died the day after a duel with Aaron Burr on July 11, 1804.
The donation of the rare artifacts to the museum came as a surprise.
“These items give us a glimpse into the personal lives of Alexander and Elizabeth Hamilton and we’re honored and delighted that Doug and his family have chosen to loan them to us,” said Philip Mead, the museum’s chief historian and director of curatorial affairs, in an interview.
“He just called me one day out of the blue and introduced himself, and I said, ‘Boy, this doesn’t happen every day that a Hamilton calls you and offers to loan national treasures,'” Mead said.
Hamilton personally drove the family heirlooms to the museum.
The exhibit will showcase approximately 30 artifacts related to Alexander and Elizabeth Hamilton.
Nancy Bilyeau, a former staff editor at “Entertainment Weekly,” “Rolling Stone,” and “InStyle,” has written a trilogy of historical thrillers for Touchstone Books. Her new novel, a thriller set in the 18th century, is titled “The Blue.” For more information, go to www.nancybilyeau.com.
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